General thoughts on Modernism

Upon reading through the suggested literature for this week, Gikandi’s essay on the role of Africa in Picasso’s oeuvre seems to best embody the relationship between Modernism and Empire the module seems to call into question. In tracing the birth of Modernism back to a localized incident in the African context, Gikandi highlights the fact that in the legitimate and recognized realm of contemporary culture, the non-European, non-white elements are relegated to the peripheries by default.

The ‘other’ is given a voice through the vehicle of Modernism, but only momentarily, and that too, for the purpose of defining the ‘self’ by what it is not. The ‘other’ is stripped off any individual identity independent of one that has no correlation to the mainstream European ‘self’, hence any power delegated to African culture is one contained within the parameters of the white gaze as objects defining and supporting the pre-established principles and identity of European aesthetics.

An image congruent to this would be that of postive and negative space in aesthetics, wherby white and black can stand for either/or, despite the fact they are chromatically binary opposites.


Fig 1: Spaces between Moth (donald mackay,

The use of equal amounts of positive and negative space in a composition is what classically defines visual art as ‘good’, and with Modernism being a reactionary movement celebrating the upheaval of the classical, this formulaic nature of aesthetics is re-evaluated in literal terms in the aesthetic works themselves, yet with respect to the influences and foundations of the form itself, it ironically reverts back to the concept of defining what it is by what it is not–and what it can never admit to being influenced by.

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